The foreword to Open Road Media’s edition of Loving You begins with a quotation, and I can’t help but use the same one to begin my review:
“For black lesbians,” writes novelist and critic Jewelle Gomez, reading Ann Allen Shockley’s first novel, Loving Her (1974), “was like reading The Well of Loneliness for the first time as teenagers and realizing there were ‘others’ out there.”
That reference is fitting. I found myself thinking of The Well of Loneliness throughout reading Loving Her, for a few reasons. The first is that this is obviously a very important, groundbreaking work for black lesbians. It was the first black (explicitly) lesbian novel published, and the first lesbian novel with an interracial couple. But the second is the tone of the story, which was sometimes uncomfortably close to the narrative published fifty years prior.
Loving Her begins with Renay escaping, with her daughter, from her abusive, drunken husband. She finds refuge with her partner, a rich white writer. Beyond that, there isn’t much of a plot arc to Loving Her. It is mostly about Renay, and her girlfriend Terry, attempting to survive together in a racist, sexist, homophobic world. Renay is caught between worlds, finding escape from abuse and the possibility of love in this new gay community, but it’s a community that is almost entirely white. She finds community with her family and friends, and an escape from racism there, but has to remain closeted to avoid the homophobia contained there. And of course there is the sexism and homophobia of the entire society on top of that.
Trigger warning for discussion of rape in the rest of this review.
Loving Her is a thought-provoking and important book, but it is deeply flawed. As the foreword notes, this is Shockley’s first novel, and there are issues in the character development (including “gross generalizations, and stereotypical constructions of black men and women”) and “trite language”, like describing rape as “trying to shove his male dagger into the secret abyss of her being”.
Renay was compelling, but most of the other characters feel flat for me. I think the characters that most intrigued me were minor ones, Lorraine and Vance, and that’s because they had such a terrible relationship. Lorraine behaves like a spoiled brat constantly, while Vance provides for her. At the same time, Lorraine expresses her dissatisfaction at not being allowed much of a life, especially because they began their relationship so young. She is deeply unhappy, but Vance treats her like a child and everyone simply ignores her when she acts out. Lorraine seems frantic to escape her mundane life, but is terrified of risking everything. [spoilers, highlight to read] When she does leave, Vance makes her own misogyny clear when she states that “they’re all alike” and “My motto now is the four f’s. Find ’em, fool ’em, fuck ’em, and flee ’em.” [end spoilers] This is a very small part of the novel, but they are fascinating, and seem to suggest that though Renay escapes her abusive heterosexual relationship for a supposedly idyllic lesbian one, that doesn’t mean that lesbian relationships are inherently healthy or that they can’t have power imbalances.
Though I appreciated the importance of Loving Her, I can’t say that it was an enjoyable read overall, and that is because of the Well of Loneliness-esque tone of despair.
[major spoilers below]
Renay begins the book married to a man who abuses and rapes her. In fact, the reason they got married is because Renay got pregnant when he raped her. Even when she leaves him, there is always the threat that he will find her again. When he does, he beats her to the point of hospitalization. Later, he threatens to tell the judge about their lesbian relationship in order to gain custody of her daughter. And this is all on top of the more everyday homophobia, sexism, and racism that Renay already faces. This made for a difficult read, but the breaking point for me was at the end, when Renay’s daughter dies. She was in a car with her drunken father at the time. This seemed like completely over-the-top tragedy for me in an already dark story, and definitely reminded me of Well of Loneliness. Renay even asks “Do you think God’s punishing us for this?” Then she leaves Terry. The difference is that Renay and Terry get back together by the end of the book, a supposedly happy ending. It reminds of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which is supposed to be the first lesbian book with a happy ending, but like this one, I would not call an ending that bittersweet a happily ever after.
I had a few other complaints as well, including that all the characters drink constantly throughout this book. Because Renay experienced abuse when her husband drank, I was surprised that she wasn’t uncomfortable with everyone drinking on pretty much every page. Especially because there are a few times that Terry gets drunk and angry. I also had difficulties with a one-off observation when Renay remarks that her light brown skin suggests “Somewhere down the line, through rape or consent, body chemistry and mind attraction weren’t controlled by society’s norms or by the system,” as if that proved that interracial romance was possible. This conflation of rape with consensual relationships was jarring to me, especially considering the power dynamics at play in the relationships she’s referencing.
But the one factor that that really inhibiting me from loving Renay and Terry’s relationship is that they both have scenes that read like rape, with each other. When they begin their sexual relationship, it’s fairly one-way. Later, Renay insists on going down on Terry in return, but Terry clearly says “No-no, Renay. I don’t want you to that” and is protesting. This is treated as if Renay is being generous. In another scene, when Terry is drunk, she pins Renay down, her body crushing hers, making Renay taste blood and feel like she is being bruised. Renay even thinks that this reminds her of Jerome. Terry stops at this point, and it shrugged off. Clearly, we’re not supposed to read either of these scenes as rape or abuse, despite how they are described.
As I said, this is a deeply flawed novel. The scenes between Terry and Renay that read like rape are enough in themselves to turn me off the book, but there is still value here. Like The Well of Loneliness, this book has to be read in consideration of the time it was written. Loving Her paved the way for black lesbian authors, and these stories are just as desperately needed today as they were forty years ago. Shockley was weighing in on the debates of the 1960s and 70s, and many of the points she is making still ring true today.
I definitely think that if you decide to read Loving Her, you should pick up the version with a foreword by Alycee J. Lane. (Do read the foreword after you’ve read the book, however, or you’ll know the whole story beforehand.) Most of the complaints I had–apart from the problematic scenes between Terry and Renay–were included in the foreword, and it also adds a lot of historical context to the book. Despite all of the issues I had with this book, it is still one I would recommend: it’s just one that I would recommend with reservations.